Dickey: Viola’s “Coming from Darkness” Was Good Prep for His Knuckleball

Four scoreless innings is a good start for a pitcher, and that’s what knuckleballer Frank Viola III served up to batters a week ago in his minor-league debut with the Blue Jays organization. MLB.com observes that fellow knuckleballer R.A. Dickey

had nothing but positive things to say about a player he helped mentor during the offseason. Viola spent two months in Nashville, Tenn., earlier this year and frequently worked with Dickey.

The two initially formed a bond when Dickey was with the Mets in 2012 and since that time, Viola has evolved into the type of knuckleballer that may have a chance to continue doing this for a living.

Viola and Dickey

“I think potentially he could be a very good knuckleball pitcher,” Dickey said. “So much has to happen to be able to hold that pitch in the right place. Mentally, you’ve got to be a certain way. You’ve got to have a certain type of personality. You have to be able to field your position well, hold runners well.

“I think that he has a good enough knuckleball to be able to pitch up here. Now the other stuff, we’ll see. But I have a lot of hope that he can do it. His narrative is such that he’s come from some darkness, and a lot of guys that do that have a way of holding the pitch in the right perspective. So we’ll see.”

The darkness Dickey is referring to came after Viola was selected by the White Sox in the 29th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. He got hurt within two years and eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery before getting released by Chicago in 2007. He spent some time in independent baseball before eventually trying to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.

Dickey (seen with his self-described “Padawan” in the photo, which is posted at Viola’s Twitter account) says he wasn’t wowed when he first saw Viola’s knuckleball, but that on the second occasion he could “see firsthand that…he could repeat a delivery mechanically, and he could take spin off the baseball. And if you can do those two things, you’ve got a shot.”

Viola says of his performance:

“It was exciting to get back out here…. I was a little nervous, like always. I’m glad I was nervous because that means I care. It was just exciting because all the hard work paid off. You go through a lot of things in life, and sometimes you just don’t feel worth it, because it was handed to you. This wasn’t handed to me. It was a lot of hard work and dedication. A lot of people supported me.”

Back in March, Blue Jays From Away wrote about how the Blue Jays organization seemed to be grooming knuckleballers like Tomo Ohka and Frank Viola III.

While Dickey hasn’t had as much of an influence over Ohka’s development of the circus pitch, he has been instrumental in Viola’s development…. Up until this winter, Viola had been dabbling with the pitch over the past several years, even showing off the pitch in an early stage of development to Dickey and some of the staff of the New York Mets in 2012. Viola even admitted that he “had only been throwing it for a month back then and…. I was not in a position to be throwing a knuckleball to any hitters at that point, but took a lot in, and took a lot in from what R.A. had to say.”

First lesson: you can turn to the pitch fairly late in your career, even if you lack antecedent expertise beyond foolin’-around level.

Second lesson: becoming an effective knuckleballer is nothing mystical or magical. It’s work. What Viola did to change Dickey’s response from “meh” to “yeah!” is train, and persist. There wasn’t any mystical aura of innate talent to Viola’s early, imperfect efforts with the knuckleball that led Dickey to predict imminent success. But he saw a serious intention, and so fostered it. The rest was and is up to Viola.

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